Trick or treating in Roswell has always sucked, nothing like the movies with swarms of kids in New England cheerfully sauntering through maple trees shrugging off their technicolor leaves, the cookie-cutter houses with their gables and painted dormers huddled next to each other as if to ward off the cold. The desert is huge, wide open sky and endless scrubland unrolling, a quarter mile or more between the houses. Sometimes the farm kids from the outskirts would go trick or treating in the wealthier central neighborhood, but even those were hit and miss.
The annual Halloween festival is kiddie paradise: pumpkin carving, face painting, free candy, the streets closed to cars so costumed ghouls can go screaming across the street. East 2nd is packed with caped crusaders and princesses, Star Wars and Star Trek crossing the galaxy hand in hand with their little pumpkin printed plastic bags. When Alex was a kid, it was a tiny, pathetic thing: a few storefronts handing out stale candy corn, but then Alex didn’t have Isobel Evans prowling around, sharklike, demanding all the businesses at Main and Second participate or else, like a small-town mafioso. No one wants to know what that is.There’s a bounce house shaped like a jack o’ lantern with a line approximately half a block long. The drive-in is playing Hocus Pocus after sundown and every time someone opens the door to the Crashdown, an insane little plastic ghost lets out a screaming OOOOOoooooooooh that Alex barely hears anymore.
Alex’s pumpkin is missing a tooth, one sharp triangle that keeps sliding off the toothpick he’s liberated for gourd facial reconstructive surgery. A rapidly browning bloody handprint smears across the face of the snaggle-toothed jack o’ lantern. His hand is wrapped in a kitchen towel that’s starting to soak through. Kyle comes by every few minutes, barking at him to raise his hand above his heart, which he does for a few minutes each time and then forgets.
“Spooky,” says Michael, almost out of nowhere, except that over the years Alex has honed a very specific Michael-sense that he estimates can locate Michael with approximately 95% accuracy at a given time. “War wound?”
“Mosul’s got nothing on this place,” says Alex. He drove the tiny plastic saw that came in the 99-cent carving set directly into his palm almost immediately: blood pooling in his cupped hand, running down his wrist, turning the pumpkin guts murky brown, ripping out half the poor pumpkin’s eye.
Buffy is incognito today: a two-buck Dracula cloak and bat wings with gold and purple trim that Alex could not resist last week in the dog food line. She looks like a vampire by way of Sesame Street. She’s submitting to the indignity with heroic suffering, rolling her eyes up at him every few minutes as if to say: see what I’m putting up with? She puts her paws up on Michael’s leg, standing on her back legs, which she almost never does to anyone else, probably begging for an end to this injustice, with her giant sad eyes and droopy ears. It absolutely figures that Alex would end up with a dog that’s too cool for costumes.
Alex actually forgot he was wearing Liz’s silver antenna headband -- under threat of bodily harm by Arturo -- until Michael mocks him for going as an alien in Roswell. “I’m a Crashdown waitress, actually,” says Alex. He watches as Michael opens his mouth to ask, leering, if Alex plans to model the rest of the uniform, which would make Alex immediately defensive because they’re surrounded by screaming kids and he doesn’t like crowds on the best of occasions. He sees it so clearly it’s like a window into a parallel universe, breaking off from theirs at this very instant. This is what their slow push-pull, stop-start grinding friendship has brought them: these strange half-born moments, partially developed, messages from another universe like the ghostly afterimage in your eyes after looking too long at the sun. Michael closes his mouth, question unasked, and they both laugh.
Michael is not in costume, except he insists he is, he’s actually Frankenstein. “The doctor, not the monster.” He looks exactly the same as always: dirty white tee, grease on his jeans, hair stuck up in all directions, unbearably gorgeous. He’s wearing a smug, dumb smirk on his face.
“Guerin,” says Alex, pained, “I know.” Buffy reaches up from her sentry station in the dirt, putting her head on Alex’s knee as if to say: unbelievable, this guy . Alex knows. There is never a time when Michael is anything less than beautiful.
Michael sits down next to him, swinging his leg over to straddle the bench. There are three picnic tables filled with pumpkin of various levels of artistry: Alex’s pumpkin with its jacked-up grill at the lower end and Rosa’s painstakingly rendered Vitruvian Jack Skellington at the other. Alex is technically guarding the carved pumpkin cache until the competition winners are announced later in the evening. Last year a bunch of drunken teenagers made off with the carved pumpkins in broad daylight and used them for target practice, leaving the rotting remains of pumpkin skulls out by the old turquoise mines where Roswell teens have been getting up to no good since the town’s early days as an old west watering hole. His duties are thus: given each entrant a ticket and write the ticket number in sharpie on the top of the pumpkin, then light the three tea candles, which are free with the 20-dollar entry fee (“It’s for a good cause,” said Isobel, defensive).
“This guy needs some help,” says Michael, examining Alex’s pumpkin. He turns to look at it from all angles, poking out the remaining piece of one of the half-carved crescent eyes, scraping some of the stringy pumpkin guts away from where it hangs, moss-like, from the misshapen grinning mouth. Alex isn’t much of an artist. The sun sinks low, lighting up the sky in deep pinks and reds, a wash of purplish-blue advancing from the east, a few stars barely visible. The first sodium street lights have begun to flicker on, blanketing the festivities in a sulfurous orange glow. Candlelight catches Michael’s face, throwing him into dramatic shadow.
“Didn’t think this was your scene,” says Alex as neutrally as possible. Except maybe it is. Despite his loner schtick, Michael is always skulking around town events, the reunion, the drive-in, looking a little unsure and out of place in his usual uniform, refusing to dress up or acknowledge in any way a desire to belong. Alex can understand that, at least. Michael Guerin, town fix-it, known for bringing troublesome little trinkets back to life, his innate helpfulness getting the better of him.
Michael breaks the toothpick in half and sticks each end into the troublesome tooth, to improve the torque or whatever, Alex isn’t an engineer (“It’s definitely not torque, Alex.”). “I like handing out candy,” he says after a second, absorbed in his work. “It makes people happy.” He catches Alex’s gaze, a ghostly half smile on his face, his soft, tender heart the butt of the joke. Alex does not let himself look away until Michael does.
Alex pulls stringy pumpkin guts away from the seeds, creating a neat little pile of white ovals. As a kid, it was his job to wash and clean the seeds in a big bowl of water, skimming the loose seeds where they floated free from the pumpkin. When he was a kid, his mom would fry the seeds in butter and salt and sprinkle them in a shower of cinnamon sugar. After she left, he and his brothers would mostly burn them; Alex grew to like charred taste.
It’s a treat to watch Michael surreptitiously as he cleans the blood and dried gourd innards off the pumpkin’s cheerfully dumb face, whittling out the mouth and eyes so it’s a little spookier and less lopsided. Michael takes care in his work; he’s good at it: intent, careful, steadfast, making minor adjustments on each side like he’s DaVinci carving David out of marble instead of Alex’s terrible jack o’ lantern. His perfect hands working seamlessly.
Kyle comes by again to harangue Alex (“Hand up!”) and drop off a fresh towel, complaining about the high incidence of Halloween-related injuries -- nearly twenty percent of Halloween injuries are related to pumpkins and over seventy to stupidity -- like a crotchety old man, looking very much like he’s subsisting solely on candy and caffeine. Kyle’s manning the first aid station until his graveyard shift at the hospital. His face is a little smudged with gray because he started the day in full skeleton make-up, sawbones, get it? , immediately terrifying the under five age group to tears. There’s something still a little eerie about the dark spots around his eyes. Or maybe that’s the exhaustion. His gaze lingers on Michael, on Buffy’s head on the bench between their legs (“Leave room for the Slayer,” he quips). He pulls a rawhide bone from nowhere; Buffy promptly loses interest in Michael or dignity. Buffy, to Alex’s glee, didn’t like Kyle at the beginning -- she’s got taste, at least -- but she’s warmed to him through Kyle’s concentrated campaign of free treats.
“What do you think?” says Michael when Kyle walks off, turning the the facelifted pumpkin toward Alex. It looks better, less childish and haphazard, and Michael’s added a cowboy hat above the pumpkin’s eyes. Alex’s heart stutters at the hopeful, lit-up expression on Michael’s face, that beloved slow-joke grin.“Worth a twenty dollar candle?”
“Perk of the job,” Alex tells him, digging a tea light from the Costco sized box. “A Michael Guerin original.” A self-portrait if you will. The broken tooth glows around the all edges once the candle is lit, as if gold-capped, which is a nice touch.
“It was a joint effort,” says Michael. He looks very kissable in the low light of the candles, which is to say he looks like himself, because there is almost never a time when Alex doesn’t want to take Michael into his arms and feel the warmth of his body and bury himself in the scent of his hair. Alex takes a deep breath, blowing out those bubbling up feelings where they threaten to leak out of him, like magma slowly pulsing up from the earth’s core. The very substance of him.
“Let’s see,” says Michael, gesturing to Alex’s hand, picking up the fresh towel. The bloody rag comes unstuck slowly, tearing open barely scabbed over flesh. His palm is raw-looking, split open and sticky. Michael’s hands are very warm and gentle, his fingers skimming over Alex’s knuckles, across the thin, sensitive skin at his wrist.
“Up for a little miracle?” says Alex, his voice sounding hushed and reedy to his own ears.
“Not my area,” says Michael, but he’s smiling, the candlelight picking up the gold in his lashes, his hair, the warm of his eyes. It’s good to see Michael happy, his face relaxed, laughing, smiling almost bashfully, orbiting almost painfully close to that shy, hopeful kid Alex knew over a decade ago. That he kissed until his mouth was chapped, until his lungs fought for breath because he could not breathe and kiss Michael at the same time, and stopping kissing Michael was never an option. His heart aches for that Michael, for that parallel universe, spinning off, they two of them living in each other’s pockets, stupid and moon-eyed over each other.
Michael tucks the fresh towel back around Alex’s hand, making a secure little mitt, like a cast. Alex’s face and neck feel hot, as if the sun were beating down on them, instead of being hidden away in the flickering firelight. Michael’s face is entirely in shadow, lit only by the glowing jack o’ lanterns. The festival going on around them, kids running headlong across the streets in glittery wings and capes and masks, seems very far away. “I was thinking we could -- you know,” says Michael. He swallows, sharp, like a nervous kid. “Watch the movie.”
“You want to watch a kid’s movie with me?”
“Yeah,” says Michael.
“Me too,” says Alex, meaning: I want to do everything with you.
Michael kisses him. He leans across the bench, taking Alex’s face in his hands. His mouth is warm and soft, tasting faintly of beer and candy. He smells good, like himself, like some of the best and worst moments of Alex’s life, like home. Alex touches his neck and face with his good hand, the soft, smooth skin behind his ear. When Michael pulls back he takes a second to open his eyes, looking uncertain. “Okay?” he says.
“Yeah,” says Alex. He lets Michael kiss him again, once, twice, three times, letting Michael creep closer to him so he can almost feel the warmth of Michael pressed against him until someone comes to drop off a pumpkin and Alex has to break away and leave him sitting there, pink-cheeked and bright eyed, breathless, while Alex mindlessly hands the woman her ticket, barely able to remember how his hands work in their immediate application to anything other than Michael’s warm, addictive skin. Michael writes the ticket number on the pumpkin, Sharpie cap caught between his teeth, and he puts his hand on Alex's thigh, his warmth, his weight bleeding through, Alex feeling full to bursting.
Later, Michael will dig blankets out of the tailgate when they park at the very edge of the drive-in. Buffy will curl up between them like a chaperone at a middle school dance, which will do very little to stop Alex from giddily trying to touch Michael at every turn, smoothing his palms across Michael’s arms and chest, and Michael will nose along Alex's neck, breathing him in. They’ll go back to Michael’s and on the drive Alex will keep humming “I Put a Spell on You” mindlessly until Buffy starts howling along and Michael laughs until tears form, and he’ll pull Alex against him at a red light to kiss him long and slow until some teenagers behind them lay on their horn, whooping as they drive past, burning rubber, the moon huge and bright overhead.